March 9, 2001
By Luis Gilberto Murillo
I am a former governor of Chocó, the most impoverished department of Colombia. In 1998, I tried to declare Chocó a neutral zone, a territory of peace free from the combat ravaging my country. Because of my work for peace, I was kidnapped by people who identified themselves as paramilitaries. Death threats were leveled at my family and myself. Fearing for our lives, we fled to the United States in July of 2000. We now live here in exile.
But the majority of the Colombian people do not have the option of exile. They have nowhere to run from the violence in my country. The Bush administration's announcement that it plans to expand the Clinton administration's $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia and its neighbors will only make matters worse for a lot of my fellow citizens.
The aid package, which is supposedly intended to help bring a "peaceful and sensible resolution" to Colombia's conflict, is a grave mistake. It will force Americans to pay with their checkbooks, and Colombians with their lives.
Sixty percent of the aid the Colombian government is receiving will be going to the Colombian military, notorious for having one of the worst human-rights records in the world. According to Human Rights Watch's most recent annual report, "Colombia's armed forces continue to be implicated in serious human rights violations."
Paramilitary groups, working closely with the Colombian military, often harass and terrorize citizens. Just last month, right-wing paramilitaries entered the village of Chengue in northern Colombia before dawn and herded the men of the village into the town square. The paramilitaries then killed at least 25 of them with sledgehammers and rocks, as their families watched, before setting fire to houses and shops. Survivors told the Washington Post that the Colombian military provided safe passage to the paramilitaries and sealed off the area to facilitate the massacre.
There are now more than 1.8 million Colombians who are refugees within our own country. Left with no other option, some move to the large cities and joint the ranks of the urban poor. Others, desperate and destitute, join guerilla organizations or the paramilitaries for survival. The cycle of oppression and poverty continues, and the conflict deepens.
But peace, for so long a distant prospect, has begun to light the Colombian horizon.
In October 2000, the long-ignored Colombian people met with representatives of the Colombian government and rebel groups in Costa Rica in a conference named Paz Colombia (Peace Colombia). This conference was an attempt to begin a democratic dialogue that will bring a political and peaceful end to Colombia's civil conflict. Only two years ago, such a meeting between the intensely divided sectors of the Colombian people would have been difficult to bring about.
Even the left-for-dead peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, have been resuscitated. Colombian President Andres Pastrana and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda are meeting this week to revive the talks.
Despite these overtures, the Bush administration has unwisely decided to extend weapons to Colombia instead of olive branches. As a result, the hopeful glow of peace dims in the darkness of this 40-year war. The Colombian military, newly trained and armed by the United States, is planning major offensives in the south. The guerillas, battle-tested after four decades in the jungle, are digging in, preparing for the upcoming battles.
And the Colombian people are caught in between. They desperately want and deserve to live in a country without war.
Luis Gilberto Murillo is a former governor of the department of Chocó, and the youngest person ever to be elected governor in Colombia. He and his family currently reside in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.